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Sunday, December 21, 2014         

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City needs an Office of Housing


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The shortage of affordable housing on Oahu is an indisputable fact. Among the various measures that confirm this chronic problem: The waiting list for placement in one of the state's public housing units is stuck fairly stubbornly at around the 10,000 mark.

Clearing a path for success in affordable housing development is the intent of a city charter amendment that voters will consider Nov. 2, a measure that deserves their approval.

The city's housing department was dismantled in 1998, in the wake of the Ewa Villages corruption scandal that rocked Honolulu Hale. Having a municipal agency in the role as full-fledged developer has not been missed in the intervening years, and the city has been moving to privatize its stock of affordable projects, rightly concluding that private-sector management of these properties is the most efficient model. The city doesn't need to own the properties outright but can ensure long-term affordable pricing through means such as covenants and deed restrictions.

But the city, which issues permits that housing developers need, still has a role to play in seeing that affordable housing goals are met. What has been missing is a permanent city agent to fulfill that role, by seeing that public-private partnerships don't get hung up on permitting delays or run afoul of government subsidy rules and generally ensuring that initiatives to fill out the affordable housing inventory move ahead in a streamlined fashion, with county and state players all on the same page.

Passage of the charter amendment would be an important step toward a more aggressive attack on Oahu's housing and homelessness crisis.

The language that would appear on the ballot is simple: "Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to create an office of housing directly under the mayor, to be headed by an administrator who shall be appointed by the mayor, subject to council confirmation, and who may be removed by the mayor?"

Beyond that, the enabling legislation seems designed to keep this agency more tightly focused on the narrower task of coordination, rather than initiation of housing projects. If the amendment passes as it should, the Department of Community Services would continue to handle housing issues until next July, when the new office would take over.

In the coming months, Mayor Peter Carlisle, who has voiced support for this concept, should work with the new City Council to ensure that the office remains a fairly sparsely staffed agency that enables and advocates for sound housing policy and does not morph into another executive bureaucracy.

Among the first concerns the new office should address would be helping state and private partners plan for redevelopment in the downtown-Chinatown districts. This would include Kukui Gardens, where a planned expansion of low-income units has run into delays stemming from a frozen financing market.

The project's partners report some encouraging signs of a thaw, so prospects do look ultimately hopeful. It would make sense for housing officials and advocates to make fruitful use of this lull by working together on plans to build more densely and generally make more efficient use of land available in this area. The dilapidated Mayor Wright Homes units would be one prime target for replacement.

The critical lack of affordable housing spills over into the skyrocketing numbers of Honolulu's homeless. Even with federal housing subsidies, the private market has not been able to absorb all the people needing shelter, and many of these people resort to makeshift camps to cope.

Giving more families hope of finding housing they can afford must become a greater priority for city government. And giving the city housing office permanent status through this charter amendment would be the right thing for Honolulu voters to do.






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